Weaving stories rooted in everday moments: Jacksonville director, playwright draws from diverse pool of local stories
by Madasyn Czebiniak
Oct 06, 2013 | 3686 views |  0 comments | 63 63 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Jacksonville playwright Eric Key is preparing to direct his new folklife musical ‘Kudzu & Cotton’ at the newly renovated Buckner Arts Center. Photo: Stephen Gross/The Anniston Star
Jacksonville playwright Eric Key is preparing to direct his new folklife musical ‘Kudzu & Cotton’ at the newly renovated Buckner Arts Center. Photo: Stephen Gross/The Anniston Star
According to Jacksonville director and playwright Eric Key, the worst thing about Anniston is the Japanese arrowroot plant, kudzu, and the best is the Cotton Manufacturing Company. That’s why his folklife musical project, Kudzu & Cotton, is named after them.

“They’re the two things we know about more than anything,” Key explained, leaning back in his mahogany seat in the basement theater of the Buckner Arts Center on McClellan.

After a year of renovations, the old theater has been booked for two weddings, and Lynn Rice of Community Actors’ Studio Theatre said she hopes to showcase a few of the group’s upcoming performances there.

Buckner Arts Center owner Lonna Miller, who bought the building when it was in foreclosure in 2012, was introduced to Key through the building inspector. Because the center is part of the Fort McClellan Post Headquarters Historic District, the two agreed the theater would be a great place to showcase Kudzu & Cotton, which will also have historic ties.

“Kudzu and Cotton is about documenting and performing our way of life from yesterday to the 1900s,” Key explained. “The characters in our stories aren’t Samuel Noble. We care about Joe Bob Smith who raised nine kids and didn’t kill any of them, and about Grandpa who died in the cotton mill and was buried in a cotton suit.”

Added Miller, “It’s almost like Ancestry.com, but live.”

Key said he was inspired by another folklife play, known as Swamp Gravy, that began in Colquitt, Ga., in 2007.

Swamp Gravy was named after a kind of fish stew indigenous to the Colquitt-area, much like how Kudzu & Cotton was named after things in the Anniston area.

Swamp Gravy began after Joy Jinks from Colquitt read an article on Richard Geer, an upcoming community theater director working on his doctorate, in Florida. Jinks went to Florida to persuade Geer to come save her dying, farming town through theater performance.

Geer agreed and was soon training Colquitt’s amateur actors and singers while others were gathering community stories through interviews and group storytelling sessions. After the stories were gathered they were adapted into a play and performed by Colquitt’s amateur actors and singers.

Before Swamp Gravy, Key said, Colquitt had virtually no tourism. Now that Swamp Gravy puts on 32 shows a year, tourism is booming.

According to Kate Willis, Swamp Gravy’s artistic director, in the last few years Colquitt averaged about $1.6 million in revenue, to which Swamp Gravy’s performances contributed more than $20,000 each year.

“Swamp Gravy is the major cause of tourism in Colquitt,” Willis said. “It’s what caused this town to turn around.”

Key hopes Kudzu & Cotton will do the same thing for Anniston.

“When I first saw it I became obsessed with it. I knew it was something people in this town needed,” Key said. “People here don’t care about their roots. You need to know where you come from in order to know where you’re going.”

Like with Swamp Gravy, Key and eight other participants — who he calls “story-gatherers” — find the material for their scripts by going out into the community and interviewing people about their lives.

The way Key conducts interviews, he says, is by asking people questions that everyone can relate to — something along the lines of “Tell me about a time you lost your faith?” or “What’s the most trouble you’ve ever been in?” These universal themes, with several different stories woven together, are what he hopes to be the main focus of the performance.

“They’re things that are broad, but are direct to you. You don’t have to know who the person is but once you have that emotional connection … it gives me chills,” Key said.

Patricia Wilmot, one of the gatherers, said the interviews can be hard because sometimes she doesn’t know the right questions to ask.

“It takes people a while to talk about the things you really want them to talk about,” she said.

Key has already begun writing the script for the first performance which he hopes to make happen by the end of November. He also has an idea for a Christmas performance with a theme of “What is your favorite Christmas memory?”

The show is open to anyone who wishes to participate — as long as they behave, Key said. He and other participants are looking for ordinary adults, children and students, professional experience not required.

“It doesn’t matter who it is,” he said. “It ain’t folk art without folks.”

If interested in participation of for more information, visit www.kudzuandcotton.com.

Staff Writer Madasyn Czebiniak: 256-235-3553. On Twitter: @Mczebiniak_star

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